My professor at the art academy wore black – always. Black trousers, black shirt, black pullover, black coat, black shoes. So were some of the students. Soon I realised that wearing only black is not a rare thing amongst artists. But why?
Why do so many artists, architects, designers, musicians and other people in creative fields choose to wear black from head to toe, every day, from spring to winter?
A commitment to other colours in such an uncompromising way is rather rare. I knew a girl, who was a glasspainter, and she would only wear red. I also read that German painter Johannes Grützke is known to wear only white. However, black is still the most popular choice amongst artists. It may not be a standard for exhibition openings or other cultural events anymore, but it is still prevalent in some artistic circles.
The reason why I personally asked myself this question many times is because I love practically all colours, they are a profound part of my life, my work and yes, my wardrobe too. It is not that I am running around like a clown (or at least not anymore…), but I do feel I have a basic need to wear colours. It is part of my personality. The colours I choose are also very connected to the mood I am in. So I wonder how someone can be in a mood for black every day?
Sure, there are the practical advantages of wearing only black: Whatever you take out of your wardrobe matches together, black is insensitive to stains and probably needs washing less often. Black is also not under the dictation of fashion like most other colours, it always appears modern.
I won´t deny that it can be a struggle to choose the colour match of the day, but I think the artist who claims that he/ she is wearing black only for reasons of practicalities might not be telling the truth – after all black is far from being neutral and insignificant.
In design black has an incontrovertible place in general. In the fashion world exists an almost cultish devotion to black, almost comparable to orange for Hare Krishnas. The famous fashion designers seem to agree that black is the ultimate colour:
Coco Chanel (who invented the little black dress): “A woman needs just three things; a black dress, a black sweater, and on her arm, a man she loves.”
Gianni Versace: “Black is the quintessence of simplicity and elegance.”
Yves Saint Laurent: “Black symbolizes the liaison between art and fashion.”
And Karl Lagerfeld: “Black is the colour that suits everybody. With black you are safe.”
So is it merely about simplicity and or maybe an elegance without risks?
I´d say there is definitely a risk and I surely don´t agree with Mr. Lagerfeld. I am a good example of somebody who does not look her best in black. Black can be draining on one´s complexion, that is no not a myth. As I was born with lines under my eyes (all my relatives from the Iranian side have them), which by the years developed to deep circles, black makes me look tired.
A strong characteristic of black is that it underlines the wearers’ qualities and flaws. By wearing black all the attention is on the person, there is nothing to abstract the viewer. An acquaintance of mine who used to wear mainly black but now is wearing more “gentle” colours said: “I only wear black now on days I feel quite self-confident.”
Some artists are wearing black like an armour though. It creates this impenetrable shield of coolness and mystery around them. Normally artists want the attention from their audience but at the same time, many are afraid to reveal too much of themselves.
Do black clothes provide some kind of protection?
Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto said: “Black is modest and arrogant at the same time. Black is lazy and easy – but mysterious. But above all black says this: I don’t bother you – don’t bother me.”
Certainly wearing black all over every day is the expression of an attitude. The picture of the young melancholic existentialist dressed in black was already created in the 50s. The black clothes were a symbol of individuality, of freedom of choice and they were meant to distance themselves from the bourgeois society.
And still today it is the colour of most subcultures who aim to settle themselves beyond the masses (the goths, the punks, etc.). It is the colour of protest, of negation and of illegal activites (black labour, the black market, black magic…).
Do artists wear black because they are (or want to be) different, unadapted, rebellious?
Johnny Cash: “I wore black because I liked it. I still do, and wearing it still means something to me. It’s still my symbol of rebellion — against a stagnant status quo, against our hypocritical houses of God, against people whose minds are closed to others’ ideas.”
But there is the another aspect of black which actually indicates the opposite. Lawyers often wear black, as do business-people and other people in fields of work where it is important to appear respectable, but also modest.
Pipilotti Rist: “People who are wearing colourful clothes are presumed to be superficial. Someone who is wearing black shows: I don´t need to tart up myself, I have inner values.”
So is it about credibility, a desire for respect?
Wearing black always gives an immediate impact of respectability, relevance and profundity which would be somewhat harder to achieve in a pink dress.
Eventually I must say that black seems to be extremely versatile, and maybe it is exactly this versatility that makes black so attractive for artists in particular. Black is the colour which has the ability to make the wearer appear modest and cool, elegant and confident, distinct and rebellious, but at the same time respectful and profound… practically an all-rounder. You can blend in whilst standing out.
How do artists who are wearing mainly black feel about this? I asked a few colleagues why they prefer wearing black to other colours:
Karin Roy Andersson: I think it is a very interesting subject – why people wear black. In my case I think it is partly because I’m a bit lazy ( if everything in your wardrobe is black it is very easy to match your outfit in the morning) but the main reason is that I think my face is more visible when I wear black. This might sound strange but I have a very Scandinavian colour free face – not much eyebrows and eyelashes and pale lips. When I wear black it becomes sort of a paspartu that doesn’t take much attention but contrasts the beige head and face. And then I really love black and the different shades of grey. I think it is so beautiful with different black surfaces where the structure of the fabric (or whatever material it is) creates it’s special blackness.
Photo: Hanna Liljenberg
Sofia Björkman: Is black a colour or is it just nothing?
I have a friend who says that she never wears black clothes because she can’t see the forms.
I have a lot of black clothes, more than I wear. Let’s say I have 40 black tops, 20 pants, 20 black dresses and 50 pair of socks. Why so many?
It must mean that I see the forms and think they differ from each other.
Black clothes are like white spaces.
A white space lures to fill and so do black clothes.
A white space is normally not truly white but colored by thoughts and activities and so are black clothes.
Jewellery are often photographed with a white background and we focus on everything but the white. Sometimes the background is black. But is it hollow?
My reality is not white or black. It is filled. Completely filled. A swarm of matter, abstract thoughts and indefinable things.
I don´t see nothing, I see what I learned.
Black is powerful so it can´t be nothing.
Black makes the colors more colourful.
Photo: Urban Jörén
Photo: Thomas Splett
Jorge Manilla: Black is seen as mysterious and secretive. A hidden color which absorbs the light. Usually shown in many negative connotations. For me black opens up the profound parallels of unconscious and brings me into feeling of restful emptiness. I wear black as a personal expression.. It is a dedication for the deceased
…for the emotions have never been expressed
…for word of love I’ve never said
…for the repressed feelings
…for hidden pain
…for those who forgot me and I forgot as well
…for unforgiven ones and who had done the same
…for light within the darkness
…for darkness in the light
…for given love
…And love which been denied
Using black as a personal touch, I know, one day this darkness will take me to the place where the light begins.. Let me to discover… If that light is black as well.
Photo: Rika Vanhove
Steven Gordon Holman: When I was younger I never wore black. I thought it was too dark and spooky and boring. About seven years ago I think I bought my first piece of black clothing, some jeans, and ever since my wardrobe has been increasingly monochromatic (with a few slips of camouflage, my vice). I think that I’ve found black to be actually really liberating in terms of what I can wear. It’s easier to play with shapes and silhouettes, patterns and textures, when everything is enveloped in black. It’s a uniform with endless possibilities and combinations, because everything can be layered and constructed in a million different ways, and whether the silhouette is bold or subtle, black over black always works.
Text edit: Hayley Grafflin